Community-centred revitalisation of Souq al-Silah in Cairo (Egypt)
A long-standing project has been working to revitalise a commercial street in the historic district of Darb al-Ahmar and reconnect the local community with their cultural heritage. The project, developed with help from the Research Station of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, consists of awareness-raising and training workshops, the creation of a community centre and the development of local partnerships.
Tucked away amid the modern urban area of Cairo lies the World Heritage property of Historic Cairo. Historic Cairo was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1979 under criteria (i), (v) and (vi). The property’s area expands over 523.66 ha.
Cairo is one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities, with its famous mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains. Founded in the 10th century, it became the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century.
The State of Conservation Reports for the property (1993-2019) highlight ongoing concerns regarding housing, identity, social cohesion, changes in local population and community, lack of functioning management systems, rain/water table, dilapidated infrastructure and neglect and lack of maintenance. UNESCO and the Advisory Bodies have carried out over 30 missions since the time of listing. Between 1993 and 2019, 20 State of Conservation reports have been presented to the World Heritage Committee. According to the Decisions adopted by the Committee in 2019, progress was being made, in conformity with its previous recommendations, in implementing measures and projects for mitigating the rapid deterioration of the property and controlling development within the boundaries of the property.
Community-centred revitalisation of Souq al-Silah
The community-centred revitalisation of Souq al-Silah is a long-standing project to reinvigorate the identity and heritage values of this historic street in the district of Darb al-Ahmar and reconnect the local community with their cultural heritage. The project is developed by the Research Station of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The initiative aims to raise awareness about Historic Cairo’s heritage values and promote their conservation while empowering the community to take ownership of their cultural heritage and harness its potential to drive local development.
The historic district of Darb al-Ahmar is part of the World Heritage property of Historic Cairo. The neighbourhood has suffered profound cultural and social changes in the last decades, mostly due to modernisation, industrialisation and internal migration. These factors have led to a separation between the site’s cultural heritage and the community that inhabits it. Historical public buildings, such as public baths, caravanserais and sabil-kuttab (water station and school) are increasingly in disuse. On the other hand, protected buildings are fenced and locked, often subject to vandalism.
In this context, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science developed a revitalisation program that aimed to encourage heritage protection through the use of historic buildings and to avoid imposing a particular perception of heritage.
Between 2016 and 2018, the project was funded by the Toyota Foundation, at the cost of approximately USD60,000. From May 2018 onwards, the project has been developed in collaboration with local partners, including:
- National and regional governments: National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), Heritage Section of the Cairo Governorate, and the Ministry of Antiquities.
- Local not-for-profit organisations, including the Nile Palace and the Friends of Historical and Public Gardens Society
- International partners: Japan Foundation, Embassy of Japan in Egypt, Obayashi Foundation and the World Monument Fund.
The project consists of three main actions:
1) Awareness-raising and training workshops
An essential aim of the project was to increase the local community’s understanding of cultural heritage. For this goal, 29 workshops were carried out. At the same time, the workshops were used to understand the potential uses of the Beit Yakan community centre, a restored historical building located on the street. The workshops took place in cultural heritage sites, such as the Azhar Park, Islamic Art Museum and historical mosques, which helped residents to re-discover these sites.
During the initial phase of the project, the community workshops were targeted towards local women and children. This strategy allowed researchers to build trust with the community. During the workshops, women identified their priorities for community development: to improve children’s education, to have safe public spaces in which they can socialise while children play, and to learn some skills to improve their livelihoods.
On a second stage, the workshops were expanded to include the local men, especially craftsmen and woodworkers. The workshops led to a reinvigoration of the woodworkers’ guild, identifying the Souq Shirah brand identity and establishing a woodcraft training facility in the community centre.
In 2022, a multi-stakeholder consultation, community workshop and online lecture were organised with the support of the Cultural Agency of Japan, Japan Society for the Promotino of Science (Cairo Liaison Office), the Japan Commission for Appropriate Architecture and the Built Environment, and the Egyptian National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH). The events brought together over 100 participants, including government officials, members of the local communities, heritage specialists and representatives of NGOs. ICOMOS Japan, World Monuments Fund and UNESCO Cairo provided technical advice.
2) Creation of a community centre
Based on the results of the community engagement program, new uses were proposed for the community centre of Beit Yakan. The cultural centre hosts the woodcraft training facilities, which support the income of local craftsmen, and learning facilities for activities like Islamic geometry, Arabic calligraphy and traditional crafts.
The community centre is powered by photovoltaic panels placed in the roof, which fully cover the building’s energy consumption. The organisation aimed to set an example for the installation of sustainable energy sources in historical buildings.
3) Development of local partnerships
To ensure the sustainability of the initiative in the long-term, the Research Station sought partnerships with local actors, including the wood-working guild, local and regional governments, and non-profit organisations. Since 2018, the project’s activities have been financed by local stakeholders and partners.
At the same time, the project aimed to build a connection between the Japanese community abroad and in Cairo and the local residents. For this, two symposiums were organised on-site with the Governorate of Cairo and NOUH. The conferences counted with the participation of Japanese conservation experts and members of the Japanese community of Cairo.
Two technical reports on the concept design of the adaptive use of the historical urban area of Souq al-Silah were commissioned in 2022. One project report and one book were published and distributed among the heritage management authorities, urban planners, urban planners, community members and other stakeholders.
Source: Naoko Fukami, Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, Cairo Research Station. January 2021. Updated in June 2022, thanks to Dr Akatsuki TAKAHASHI, Programme Specialist for Culture, UNESCO Cluster Office for Egypt and Sudan
Contribution towards global goals
How does this case study contribute to the global commitments of sustainable development, climate change action and heritage conservation?
The initiative aims to contribute towards sustainable development by addressing the following Sustainable Development Goals:
Target 4.4: the project aims to increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship, by promoting traditional crafts and establishing a woodcraft training centre.
Target 4.7: the initiative aims to contribute to the dissemination of knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, by creating dedicated educational programs and exhibitions about issues such as human rights, gender equality and the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence
Target 8.5: the initiative aims to contribute towards full and productive employment and decent work for all, by providing training and working opportunities for the local community.
Target 10.2: the initiative aims to empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, by strengthening and training disadvantaged communities in historical centres.
Target 11.4: the initiative aims to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural heritage.
Target 17.9: the initiative aims to build on efforts to enhance international support for implementing capacity-building in developing countries to support sustainable development through North-South cooperation.
Target 17.16: the initiative aims to enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, mobilising and sharing knowledge, expertise, and financial resources, to support achieving the sustainable development goals in developing countries.
Target 17.17: the project aims to deliver and promote public-private and multi-stakeholder partnerships, through the creation of a network of collaboration, the implementation of a hybrid public-private governance structure, and the establishment of cultural partnerships throughout the city and region.
New Urban Agenda
At the same time, the initiative could be also in line with the principles and lines of actions set out in the New Urban Agenda, by aiming to:
- Recognise and leverage culture, diversity and safety in cities;
- Enhance liveability and quality of life;
- Recognise public spaces as an enabler of socio-economic functions of the city;
- Promote fair employment creation, productivity and diversification;
- Tackle climate change by reducing greenhouse emissions in public buildings;
- Strengthen participation and civic engagement and engendering a sense of belonging and ownership amongst the inhabitants;
- Enhance cultural expressions; and
- Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth
Historic Urban Landscape
The project aims to raise awareness and reconnect the local community with their cultural heritage. It understands culture and heritage as contributors to sustainable urban development. If fully implemented in accordance with the described methodology, the project could contribute to the implementation of the approach of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape by:
- Conserving and maintenaning historical buildings, streets and open spaces;
- Developing community and stakeholder mapping and engagement programs;
- Establishing multi-stakeholder, private-public partnerships to promote heritage conservation and sustainable development
Discover more about the details of the case study and the stakeholders involved.
- Watch the presentation by Prof. Alaa el-Habashi during the Celebrations of the 10thAnniversary of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape.
- Read the summary report of the Toyota Foundation-sponsored project “Revitalisation and Sustainability of Communities in Historic Cairo Based on their Historical Monuments and Traditional Habitats”.
- Visit the Facebook pages Beit Yakan Fans and Revitalisation and Sustainability of Communities in Cairo.
- Read the fact sheet about the Beit Yakan community centre on the Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform.
- Read the implementation report of the Toyota Foundation-sponsored project “Revitalisation and Sustainability of Communities in Historic Cairo Based on their Historical Monuments and Traditional Habitats” (in Japanese).
- Read about the lecture series “Thinking about a sustainable community centred on historic buildings and traditional living styles in historic Cairo” (in Japanese).
- Read the Report of research presentations at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Middle East Society of Japan (Sunday, May 12, 2019, Akita University) (in Japanese) and the 2022 Report JSPS Community-based sustainable preservation of Historic Cairo (in Japanese).
- Browse through the dedicated Facebook photo album.
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science – Cairo Research Stationhttp://jspscairo.com/ Facebook
© UNESCO, 2021. Project team: Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuan Rodriguez.
All images © Bayt Yakan, under otherwise noted.
Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general. The described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.